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Eye on History: The harrowing escape of William and Ellen Craft

Fugitive slaves created many ingenious ways to escape from enslavement. One of the most well-known involved a husband and wife named William and Ellen Craft. They were both slaves from Georgia.

Ellen, the daughter of her slave master and one of his slaves, was very light-skinned and was able to pass for white. When the master’s wife found out, she gave Ellen away as a wedding gift to her daughter, Ellen’s half-sister.

Later in life, Ellen married a dark-skinned man named William, a skilled carpenter. William was born in Macon, Ga. He had witnessed his parents and siblings being sold, and he was determined to be free.

In December 1848, he came up with a plan to have his wife pose as a slave master. He took the role of her slave. Ellen disguised herself as a white Southern gentleman. Her wardrobe included a top hat, a jacket and a tassel – all of which signified slave holder status.

During this period, domestic slaves frequently accompanied their masters while traveling, so the Crafts did not expect to be questioned.

Ellen cut her hair and wore dark glasses to disguise the color of her eyes. Since she could not read or write, she put her right arm in a sling, making it impossible for her to be expected to sign hotel registers. She also wore a bandage over her jaw to hide her lack of facial hair.

William and Ellen completed their escape from the South by train and steamboat and lived in Boston for two years. They were assisted by such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown in finding a home and learning to read and write.

But the Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore in 1850, made it very dangerous for the Crafts to remain in Boston. Under the law, citizens could be fined $1,000 and imprisoned for six months for giving food and shelter to fugitive slaves. Slave catchers were given the right to search private homes and to return fugitives to their owners.

The couple’s former owners appealed to Fillmore for help in regaining their property. The president agreed that they should be returned to slavery. He authorized the use of military force to find the Crafts. This harsh law sent thousands of slaves fleeing to Canada and other places where slavery was outlawed. The Crafts left the country with the help of abolitionists. They fled to Nova Scotia and later to England. Here they received support from anti-slavery groups. In 1860, their story was published in London.

They attended a school founded by Lady Noel Byron, the widow of the noted English poet. The Crafts became prominent in England and financially successful. They earned money by lecturing about the horrible conditions of slavery in the United States.

The Crafts published numerous articles while in London in the anti-slavery press. They spent 19 years there with their five children. After the Civil War, they returned to the United States in 1868. They purchased 1,800 acres of land in Georgia and founded a school for freed slaves to help them learn how to read and write.

The Crafts wrote a very important book that described their journey to freedom. It was titled, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.” It was also known as “The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.” The book included heart-wrenching details of their enslavement.

William described how his 14-year-old sister was sold in the following way:

“My poor sister was sold first. While the auctioneer was crying the bids, I saw the man that had purchased my sister getting her into a cart, to take her home. I asked a slave standing near the platform to run and ask the man if he would wait till I was sold, in order that I might have a chance to bid her goodbye. He sent word back that he could not wait.

“I then turned to the auctioneer, fell upon my knees, and I humbly prayed him to let me just step down and bid my sister farewell. But, instead, he grasped me by the neck and said, ‘You can do the wench no good, therefore, there is no use in your seeing her.’ Before I could recover, I looked and the poor girl was gone, never to be seen again.”

In poetic words from his book, William proclaimed:

“No longer can my arm defend,

No longer can I save

My sister from the horrid fate

That awaits her as a slave!”

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 37 years.